PARIS – One of them is focusing on the numbers, hoping they’ll produce the validation he’s always dreamed of.
Another came to play on the court which made him the apotheosis of his sport, and protect this place as his personal kingdom.
The third yearns for what is left and prepares for the future.
The three greats on the men’s side of tennis – Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer – are playing in a Grand Slam for the first time in 18 months. Thanks to a quirk in the sport’s ranking system, they’re all in the same half of the table. Djokovic could face Federer in the quarter-finals and Nadal in the semi-finals. They are not getting any younger. Djokovic and Nadal are 34 and Federer, 39, is spitting on his return from knee surgery. There might just be a few more slams like this.
For years, they’ve been blessed with ethereal tennis gifts, so terrific for so long that opponents can feel they’re down a set even before the first point is played. It was hard for the lighter players to imagine beating them, let alone actually doing it.
They still love to compete, really love to win (although Federer has only won once a year) and embrace the global stardom that comes with being a tennis superstar. Any debate over who will end their career with the most Grand Slam singles titles and who will legitimately claim to be the greatest quickly becomes reductive.
However, they diverge considerably when the conversation turns to what prompts each of them to keep playing long after they’ve won hundreds of millions of dollars and solidified their historic reputation. And these thirties are well past the expiration date of the great players of all the eras that preceded them.
But at this singular moment in their career, with Federer and Nadal tied with 20 Grand Slam wins and Djokovic just behind with 18, only Djokovic is also focused on numbers. Djokovic, who just celebrated his 34th birthday and in the eyes of most experts is most likely to finish first, leaves no doubt that the pursuit of scorecard supremacy is his motivation.
“That I think about winning more slams and breaking records, of course, of course I do,” Djokovic said in February, after beating Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open final. “And most of my focus and energy from that day, until I retire from tennis, is going to be directed to the majors, trying to win more major trophies.”
It seemed very different from Nadal when he spoke about his own motivations earlier in the week. Nadal admitted this, yes he wanted to win Grand Slam tournaments. The 13-time Roland Garros champion is still the favorite here on clay, but not elsewhere, which may be part of the reason why he said winning more slams than his rivals isn’t that important. Too much ambition, he said, can leave you frustrated when things don’t turn out the way you want them to.
“For me, the main thing is to come home with the personal satisfaction of having given everything,” he said. “This is what gives me happiness and keeps me calm.”
The Grand Slam tennis season takes a long hiatus between the end of the Australian Open and the start of the French Open, which begins on Sunday. The break seemed even longer this year, as the Big Three skipped a series of major tournaments to treat injuries or avoid international travel during the pandemic.
This left time for the verbal dance that Nadal, Djokovic and Federer engaged in on the pursuit of records and legacies and what it means to outdo others.
In March, Djokovic broke Federer’s record for the most weeks atop the world rankings – a ridiculous 311. He then announced that having that mark in the bag gave him the freedom to reduce his schedule and to focus on peaking for the Grand Slam, even if that meant losing opportunities to earn ranking points and maintain his position as world No.1.
A few days later, Federer returned to competitive tennis after more than a year of recovery from knee surgery. Ahead of his return, he essentially withdrew from any competitive conversations with Nadal and Djokovic, explaining that his obsession had broken Pete Sampras’ former record of 14 Grand Slam titles, which he did in 2009.
“The guys are unreal,” he said of Djokovic and Nadal. “I hope they can do whatever they want and look back with no regrets. We want to leave the game without regret and I think from that point of view we all sleep very well at night.
He said his goal was to be at his best for Wimbledon in June and rush to play for something big, in front of the fans, against the best players in the world.
Then things started to get interesting.
In April, during a promotional interview for a beer sponsor, Nadal said Djokovic was “obsessed” with winning more Grand Slam titles than his rivals.
“It means a lot to him, all of these things, like he’s always saying and talking about these records,” Nadal said. “It’s not my approach to my tennis career.”
He insisted he didn’t mean it in a negative way, and yet.
Days later, as Djokovic prepared to play the Belgrade Open, he dismissed the characterization.
“I’ve never had a hard time saying, ‘I want to beat this record or achieve a certain goal,’” he said.
Whether playing cool or caring too much, all will focus on the same over the next 14 weeks, competing on red clay at Roland Garros, on grass at Wimbledon and on the hard courts at the Open. the United States.
For years Djokovic has been a hero to his homeland and the Serbian diaspora, but, rightly or wrongly, something like a reveler of what was once an elite rivalry between Federer and Nadal, and even a villain. occasional tennis. Fans are more often against him than against him, especially when he plays Nadal or Federer. In the past year alone, he’s defied health safety protocols and staged a tennis show that became a coronavirus super-spreading event, and accidentally hit a line umpire in the throat, which earned him a disqualification from the US Open.
Almost two decades into his professional career, no one expects him to capture the nearly universal adoration Nadal and Federer enjoy, but if he earns more than they do, it will be hard to argue that he does. ‘he is the lesser of the three.
He is the only one with a record of wins against the other two, although Nadal came close to one game, 29-28, when he beat Djokovic two weeks ago in a close game, 7-5, 1-6, 6-3, in the final of the Italian Open.
Once again, the arena in the park just west of the Eiffel Tower will become their battleground. As they prepared for Paris, each stayed true to form.
On May 18, Federer suffered a heavy loss to Pablo Andujar, ranked 75th in the world, in his debut match at the Geneva Open. He has tried to lower expectations, pointing to Wimbledon, where he has won eight times, and will remain a god, even if he doesn’t win anymore.
“Roland Garros is not the goal,” he said. “The goal is the grass.
Nadal continued to focus on his process and his efforts because winning is less predictable. After sending Djokovic to Rome, Nadal spoke of bringing passion and effort to the pitch with every game. In Paris on Friday, he focused on his first-round opponent, young Australian Alexei Popyrin, rather than his statue that the tournament organizers had unveiled. “Every round is difficult,” he said.
Then there was Djokovic, who spoke big, searched for another trophy, then quickly covered himself, trying not to appear too obsessed.
“I think I have a good chance of going all the way in Paris,” he said. Then, realizing what that meant, he added, “Sure, that’s a long shot.”